13 Feb

Thinking more about Ethnography

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This week, I looked at some more ethnography research over on my Research Methods blog.

I’m feeling particularly uncomfortable about this task, and I suspect this has something to do with my own cultural position.

I am the daughter of missionaries. By the 1980s, cross-cultural missionaries were highly trained in anthropology, ethnography and cultural sensitivity. That is, my parents were expecting to go to other cultures (first to work with Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory of Australia, and then in Hong Kong) to work alongside local people, not to Westernize or ‘save’ them. They would learn the language, and build respectful relationships with people, and learn how to behave in these other cultures. Most importantly, they would only go where invited by the local bishop.

I grew up knowing anthropologists, like Judith Stokes and Dr Julie Waddy (also the first woman I knew with a PhD), who spent their whole lives learning the language, and world view, of Anindilyakwa people on Groote Eylandt. We were only there for a year, and yet in that year we learned the language (I was only 8 and my siblings 6 and 2, but the whole family went to weekly lessons). We were given the typical ‘skin name‘, but we were also taught songs and places and totems. My brother returned to Groote over a decade later to help build an early online project with Groote Eylandt Linguistics.

I can’t waltz into a course and do ethnographic research in a couple of weeks. I can do other kinds of observation, MOOCMOOC is a course that takes place intentionally in public and I’m happy to look at it, but I’m not calling it an ethnography.

One thought on “Thinking more about Ethnography

  1. Katherine – I understand this position and I think it reflects much of the debate about what ‘counts’ as ethnography that has gone on in the social sciences in recent years. The kind of ‘pure’ anthropological approach you outline here has been challenged quite a bit in methodological debates – partly, though not entirely, prompted by the rise of ‘virtual’ and internet ethnography. I’d really recommend the transcript of a talk by Martin Hammersley, which beautifully summarises some of the key points of contestation around the term, and asks the question of whether you can even have a ‘virtual ethnography’. He deals really intelligently with some of the issues you have raised:


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